Sometime during the 17-hour-trainride from Portland to San Francisco, the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest turn into the hills covered by yellow and green grasslands and bushes that surround the Bay Area. The change in landscape coincides with a change in culture. The Ohlone people, including the Yelamu, who were the original inhabitants of the area that is now San Francisco, were the largest group of Native Americans south of the Coast Salish, but their traces are few and far in between. The time of Spanish colonization and Mexican affiliation, however, is still present in many place and street names.
Although the Bay Area is known as a literary hub, I have trouble finding people and places: I am too late for Oakland Book Festival and too early for Litquake, and I can’t find out much about weekly literary events online. Maybe I search the wrong keywords? Luckily, the places I do find prove so interesting it hardly matters.
One building, many stories: The San Francisco Public Library
My first stop is the San Francisco Public Library. The story of its main branch reflects the city’s history: In 1906 and 1989, earthquakes severely damaged the library buildings at Civic Center. In 1993, the library moved from its old spot, which was rebuilt as the Asian Art Museum, to its current location. This was part of a larger digitalization plan: Book aisles were to be replaced by computer space, many books (some of them rare or out of print) to be destroyed. To prevent this, local librarians systematically saved them and alarmed the public, which eventually brought the development to a halt.
The main branch houses all kinds of print media, a record collection, stationary computers and portable devices for mobile internet access for rent. The exhibitions on all floors feature local, national, and international artists, cover local political history, and explore the relation between arts and activism. The library shows its dedication to diversity throughout its program, starting with Drag Queen Story Hour for its youngest visitors. The youth program The Mix encourages community engagement and promotes the library as a future workplace. Since large baggage is allowed, visitors without permanent housing can bring their belongings.
Since 2008, a permanent story booth can be found on the sixth floor. It was installed by StoryCorps, a national oral history project founded in New York in 2003 whose aim is to collect, share, and preserve people’s stories. They’ve created the largest African-American story archive in US history. Visitors can make an appointment and tell their stories in interview form, which will be edited and broadcast on NPR’s morning edition. Archived stories can be found on the project’s website.
Books and Burritos: Exploring the Mission District
My second stop is San Francisco’s Mission District. It is a place shaped by immigration: First working-class immigrants from Europe, since the 1940s from Mexico and since the 1960s from Central America. While they are still the strongest presence in the eastern part of the neighborhood, the western part is increasingly populated with young members of the middle class. The Mission is considered artist-friendly. It is home to the community-oriented Mission Cultural Center of Latino Arts, San Francisco’s oldest alternative non-profit space, Intersection for the Arts, and 826 Valencia, a writing and tutoring center for young people similar (and at times connected to) BFI in Seattle. The independent bookstores Dogeared and Alley Cat can also be found here.
Walking towards Alley Cat along taquerías, colorful murals, and “Latino Cultural Quarter” signs, I wonder how much your desire to find something influences what you actually find. Before setting out on my journey, I decided to dedicate my time in California to culture contact in border areas. How does Mexican-American culture relate to dominant US culture and Mexican culture? Is the term Chican@ used as a self-description or an insult? Do people view their bilingualism as a source of pride or problems? And how permeable or impenetrable is the US-Mexican border in everyday life?
The Borderlands Lectura: Writing about the border within
And here I am, at Alley Cat, the first bookstore with a large section in Spanish and a partly bilingual website. Like many independent bookstores in the US, it also serves as a small art gallery and event space. As it turns out, there is an upcoming reading that fits my project perfectly: The Borderlands Lectura, a quarterly reading series organized by writers Michelle Wallace and Sara Campos.
On June 15, Scott Duncan, Norma Liliana Valdez, Norman Zelaya, Sara Campos, and John Jota Leaños present memoir excerpts, poems, short stories, chapters from a historical novel in progress, and a documentary short film that revolve around the experience of physical and metaphorical, external and internal borders. Some of them describe themselves as Chican@-Anglo, mestiz@, or of mixed heritage, others avoid labels. Their work treats new and established topics, counters common stereotypes overtly and covertly, and is both insightful and entertaining.
The US Mexican border is often considered not just a boundary between two countries, but between two cultural realms. The residents of the Mission District and the artists at the Borderlands Lectura show that borderlands are places of culture contact and mixing that is sometimes painful, sometimes liberating, where meaning can be negotiated in a way different from anywhere else. They show that unique places can inspire unique writing, which can hopefully form a basis for learning and ultimately understanding.